Picture’s sleek new rival
Coming up with restaurant names is not easy. With umpteeen restaurants opening a week in London, all the names that are both good and obvious have long been taken by now. But the guys behind Portland on Great Portland Street near the BBC’s Broadcasting House aren’t even trying. Given how its generic-ness is also tied to its location, ‘Portland’ is a terrible name if for no other reason than SEO – Googling ‘portland restaurant london’ gives you information about every restaurant within shouting distance of Great Portland Street – except Portland.
Portland is well worth seeking out though. At first glance it’d be easy to mistake it for Picture, its lovely neighbour across the road. Both have generally stripped back decors and short, eclectic menus. Portland definitely has its own sense of fun and style though.
The space is quite small though, so anyone sitting near the door will get frequent blasts of cold air on a winter’s day.
First things first
The most whimsical dish on the menu has to be the ox tongue sandwich, although this is arguably also the most derivative. A literal sandwich, thin yet tender and meaty slices of tongue along with a mild mustard and sauerkraut are sandwiched in between two chunky slices of toasted sourdough. Normally, the toning down of the otherwise strident mustard and sauerkraut would annoy me, but their subtleness here ensured they didn’t overwhelm the meatiness of the ox tongue. The overall effect is similar to that of a salt beef sandwich, albeit a less generously sized one. It may hew a little too closely to its forebear, but it’s still pleasing enough and the tart pickled onion served on the side is a tart, refreshing touch.
Lamb tartare isn’t as outlandish as it first sounds – raw lamb forms the basis of one of my favourite Levantine dishes, kibbeh nayeh. Portland’s lamb tartare is very much its own dish though. The slightly chewy cubes of raw lamb had a gently creamy smack of fish sauce-like umaminess which turned out to be the anchovy mayo, which makes sense as anchovies are typically used in making fish sauce. Anyway, the cubed lamb was a perfect way of conveying the umaminess along with a hint of nuttiness into my mouth. I expected the shreds of radicchio to get in the way, but surprisingly their light bitterness complimented the other elements of the dish very well. A subtle dish, but nonetheless excellent.
Portland’s menu may be meat-heavy, but vegetarians aren’t left completely out in the cold. Fluffy, pillowy gnocchi melded beautifully with a nutty and sweet pumpkin puree and a pesto that actually tasted of pine nuts and parmesan.
The slivers of duck prosciutto may not look like much, but they’re well worth having. The thin slices were unsurprisingly fatty, dense and meaty with a light hint of saltiness. It’s almost certainly much more expensive to produce than pork prosciutto, but it’s just as good as its more well-known porcine counterpart.
The baby gem lettuce and slices of radish daubed with a light sour cream felt much more like a light, insubstantial and refreshing summer dish than something suited for the dark depths of the British winter – blustery winds raged across the country as this was being written.
My first meal at Portland ended with a whimper rather than a bang. The pastry of the lemon tart was tightly packed and didn’t leave crumbs everywhere, but the filling itself, while light and fluffy, suffered from a lack of zesty tartness. The excessively soft and therefore inconsequential meringue fingers layered on top were even less endearing.
Going back for seconds
Portland’s service was friendly and welcoming across all three of my visits, although its efficiency took a serious dive on my second visit. Whereas my other meals were done in about an hour, this lunch took almost twice as long with lengthy gaps in between dishes. As it was a one-off though, I’ll put it down to growing pains.
Portland’s dishes tend to be very minimalist, almost as simple as the decor. The pickled shiitake is a good example – the tender yet meaty mushrooms weren’t as tart as I was expecting, with the gently salty and ginger taste of the mushrooms’ glaze dominating instead. The cream on the side largely obscured these pleasing flavours, so I avoided it.
Buttery, slippery leaves were paired with charred, crispy and bitter ones. Both were complimented well by a thin, yet creamy egg emulsion that was made even more compulsively lickable by the aromatically earthy addition of truffle bits.
I wasn’t expecting much from the chicken, but the tender and moist breast slices were pleasing as was the chewier and juicier hunk of thigh with the skin still attached. The sweet, chewy slices of squash and fluffy, earthy parsnip marsh were accomplished, hearty accompaniments.
The large, whole roasted cauliflower was crumbly and inoffensive. The most remarkable thing about it was the mild aroma of thyme, but this was only apparent if I put my nose right up to it.
The pastry of the hazelnut eclair could’ve been a tad softer and a little less chewy, but it was still a winner overall. The nutty cream filling and crunchy, sugary hazelnuts up top were far more enjoyable than the usual bog-standard milk chocolate and plain cream eclairs you get elsewhere.
Three is the magic number
Portland’s charcuterie selection wasn’t quite as show-stopping as the one often available at Raw Duck, but it was still damn fine. Entirely Italian in composition, the thin slices of coppa parma were fatty and woody – not quite as rich or with the same depth of flavour as the one available at the nearby In Parma, but still good nonetheless. The darker-coloured slices of culaccia were slightly bitter with herby hits, but both paled in comparison to the ventriciana. The small, bright red chunks were mildly spicy and had a soft, yielding, slightly springy texture that was a pleasure to seek my teeth into.
Less impressive were the thin scallops which quickly disappeared and became indiscernible in a sea of artichoke cream. The cream itself was great though – earthy, slightly tart and velvety, but the crisps scattered on top clashed with both the cream and the scallops. A disappointing, disjointed dish.
The chargrilled deer was more successful as it relied on the quality of its individual ingredients, rather than on an ambitious layering of different flavours and textures as was the case with the scallops. The lightly salted and nutty bark gave way to reveal tender, dense, earthy flesh. Hidden underneath a large bitter leaf was a heap of buttery barley grains. Both the barley and the slightly sweet and nutty cream enhanced and complimented the earthiness of the venison.
Firm florets of purple sprouting broccoli were garnished with crispy, salty crumbs of anchovy. There was only one whole, actual fish though so its salty punchiness was diminished and not nearly as pronounced as it could’ve been.
In an ideal world everyday chocolate bars would taste like Portland’s chocolate bar dessert – fluffy, nutty, airy nougat-like filling wrapped in a bittersweet chocolate shell. A smooth, not too icy peanut butter ice cream was a little muted, but complimented the chocolate bar well nonetheless.
Portland doesn’t get everything right, but I was nonetheless charmed by the place. Its simpler, more minimalist dishes which let a few key ingredients take centre stage were generally better than the more elaborately constructed ones. This is all relative though – even the failures were elegant in their conception, if not their execution. For now, the nearby Picture is more polished and well-rounded but it’ll be interesting to keep tabs on Portland and watch it develop and mature further. Recommended.
What to order: Ox tongue sandwich; lamb tartare; gnocchi; deer
What to skip: Lemon tart
Address: 113 Great Portland Street, London W1W 6QQ
Phone: 0207 436 3261
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 18.00-23.00. Closed Sundays.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £45-50 approx.